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Empress Dowager Cixi
Regent of the Qing Dynasty
Regency 11 November 1861 – 15 November 1908
(47 years, 4 days)
concurrently with Empress Dowager Ci’an (1861–81)
Predecessor SushunZaiyuanDuanhua and other 5 officials as regents forTongzhi Emperor
Successor Empress Dowager Longyu andZaifeng, Prince Chun as regents for Puyi
Spouse Xianfeng Emperor
Tongzhi Emperor
Posthumous name
Short: Empress Xiao-Qin Xian 孝欽顯皇后
Full: Empress Xiao-Qin Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi Pei-Tian Xing-Sheng Xian 孝欽慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙配天興聖顯皇后
Father Yehenara Huizheng
Mother Lady Fuca
Died 15 November 1908 (aged 72)
Hall of Graceful Bird,ZhongnanhaiBeijingQing Empire

Empress Dowager Cixi1 [t͡sʰɨɕi] (Chinese: 慈禧太后; pinyinCíxǐ TàihòuWade–Giles:Empress Dowager Tz’u-Hsi) (29 November 1835 – 15 November 1908), of the ManchuYehenara clan, was a powerful and charismatic figure who became the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China for 47 years from 1861 to her death in 1908.

Xianfeng EmperorFile:《咸丰皇帝朝服像》.jpg
China Qing Dynasty Flag 1889.svg 9th Qing Emperor of China
Reign 9 March 1850 – 22 August 1861
(11 years, 166 days)
Predecessor Daoguang Emperor
Successor Tongzhi Emperor
Spouse Empress Xiaodexian
Empress Xiao Zhen Xian
Empress Xiao Qin Xian
Zaichun, Tongzhi Emperor
Kurun Princess Rong’an
Full name
Chinese: Aixin-Jueluo Yizhu (愛新覺羅奕詝)
Manchu: Aisin-Gioro I Ju
Mongolian: Tugeemel Elbegt Khaan
Posthumous name
Emperor Xiétiān Yìyùn Zhízhōng Chuímó Màodé Zhènwǔ Shèngxiào Yuāngōng Duānrén Kuānmǐn Zhuāngjiǎn Xiǎn
Temple name
Qing Wenzong
Father Daoguang Emperor
Mother Empress Xiaoquancheng
Born 17 July 1831
Old Summer PalaceBeijing
Died 22 August 1861 (aged 30)
Chengde Mountain Resort,Chengde
Burial Eastern Qing TombsZunhua

Selected by the Xianfeng Emperor as an imperial concubine in her adolescence, she climbed the ranks of Xianfeng’s harem and gave birth to a son who became the Tongzhi Emperor upon Xianfeng’s death. Cixi ousted a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency over her young son with the Empress Dowager Ci’an.

Empress Dowager Ci’an
Regent of the Qing Dynasty
Regency 11 November 1861 – 8 April 1881 (19 years, 148 days)
concurrently with Empress Dowager Cixi
Predecessor SushunZaiyuanDuanhua and other 5 officials as regents forTongzhi Emperor
Successor Empress Dowager Cixi as sole regent for Guangxu Emperor
Empress consort of the Qing Dynasty
Tenure 24 July 1852 – 22 August 1861
(9 years, 29 days)
Spouse Xianfeng Emperor
Posthumous name
Empress Xiaozhen Ci’an Yuqing Hejing Chengjing Yitian Zuosheng Xian 孝贞慈安裕庆和敬诚靖仪天祚圣显皇后
Father Niuhuru Muyangga
Mother Lady Giyang, concubine
Born 12 August 1837
Died 8 April 1881 (aged 43)
Forbidden CityBeijingQing Empire
Burial Puxiangyu Dingdonling, Eastern Qing Tombs

Cixi then consolidated control and established near-absolute rule over the dynasty. She installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor in 1875.

Guangxu Emperor
Emperor of ChinaFile:Emperor Guangxu.jpg
China Qing Dynasty Flag 1889.svg 11th Qing Emperor of China
Reign 25 February 1875 – 14 November 1908
(33 years, 263 days)
Predecessor Tongzhi Emperor
Successor Xuantong Emperor
Regent Empress Dowager Ci’an
Empress Dowager Cixi
Spouse Empress Xiaodingjing
Consort Jin
Consort Zhen
Full name
Chinese: Aixin Jueluo Zaitian (愛新覺羅·載湉)
Manchu: Aisin-Gioro hala i Dzai Tiyan
Mongolian: Altan-Gioro Sai Tiyan
Era name and dates
Chinese: Guangxu (光緒)
Manchu: Badarangga Doro
Mongolian: Badaragultu Törü: 6 February 1875 – 21 January 1909
Posthumous name
Emperor Tongtian Chongyun Dazhong Zhizheng Jingwen Weiwu Renxiao Ruizhi Duanjian Kuanqin Jing
Temple name
Emperor Dezong of Qing
House House of Aisin-Gioro
Father Yixuan, Prince Chun
Mother Yehenara Wanzhen
Born 14 August 1871
Prince Chun MansionBeijing,China
Died 14 November 1908 (aged 37)
Burial Chongling Mausoleum, Western Qing TombsChina

Portrait of the Guangxu Emperor in his study

A conservative ruler who refused to adopt Western models of government, Cixi rejected reformist views on government and placed Guangxu under house arrest in later years for supporting reformers. However, she supported technological and military modernization of China’s armies. After Ronglu sabotaged the Chinese army during the Boxer Rebellion against the Eight-Nation Alliance, external and internal pressures led Cixi to attempt institutional changes and appoint reform-minded officials. Ultimately, the Qing Dynasty collapsed a few years after her death.


The Guangxu Emperor (fourth from left) with officials and European officers shortly after the Boxer Rebellion, c. 1901

Historians both in China and abroad have generally portrayed her as a despot and villain responsible for the fall of the Dynasty, while others have suggested that her opponents among the reformers succeeded in making her a scapegoat for problems beyond her control, that she stepped in to prevent disorder, that she was no more ruthless than other rulers, and that she was even an effective if reluctant reformer in the last years of her life.

Early years

The origins of Empress Dowager Cixi are unclear, but most biographies agree that she was the daughter of Huizheng (惠徵), an official from the Manchu Yehenara (葉赫那拉) clan, and his principal wife, who belonged to the Manchu Fuca (富察) clan. Huizheng was a member of the Bordered Blue Banner of the Eight Banners and served in Shanxi Province before later becoming Commissioner of Anhui Province.

It is generally accepted that she spent most of her early life in Anhui Province before moving to Beijing sometime between her third and fifteenth birthday. According to biographers, her father was dismissed from the civil service in 1853, two years after Cixi entered the Forbidden City, for allegedly not resisting the Taiping Rebellion in Anhui Province and deserting his post.Some biographers even claim that he was beheaded for his crime.

In 1851, Cixi participated in the selection process for concubines for the new Xianfeng Emperor alongside sixty other Manchu girls. This process was supervised by the Imperial Dowager Consort Kangci.

Empress Xiaojingcheng
Spouse Daoguang Emperor
Yikang, Prince Shun
Yiji, Prince Hui
Kurun Princess Shou’en
Yixin, Prince Gong
Posthumous name
Empress Xiaojing Kangci Yizhao Duanhui Zhuangren Heshen Bitian Fusheng Cheng
Father Borjigit Hualianga
Born 19 June 1812
Died 21 August 1855 (aged 43)
Shoukang Palace, Elegant Spring GardenOld Summer PalaceBeijing,China
Burial Muling Mausoleum

Cixi was one of the few girls selected to stay and was created a Preparative Concubine (秀女). In May 1851, after being selected for the emperor’s bed, she was promoted to the rank of Worthy Lady Yi (懿貴人), or concubine of the fifth rank. In 1854, she was again promoted to the rank of Imperial Concubine Yi (懿嬪).

In 1855, the Lady Yehenara (as Cixi’s name was recorded upon entering the Forbidden City) became pregnant, and on 27 April 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun, the Xianfeng Emperor’s only son. Soon afterward, she was elevated to the rank of Consort Yi (懿妃), or consort of the fourth rank.

In 1857, when her son reached his first birthday, Cixi was elevated to the rank of Noble Consort Yi (懿貴妃). The rank of Noble Consort placed Cixi second in rank only to the Empress among the ladies of the imperial household.

Death of the Xianfeng Emperor

In September 1860, British and French troops attacked Beijing during the closing stages of the Second Opium War, and by the following month had burned the Emperor’s exquisite Old Summer Palace to the ground. The attack, under the command of Lord Elgin, was mounted in retaliation for the arrest on 18 September of British diplomatic envoy Harry Parkes and the torture and execution of a number of western hostages. The Xianfeng Emperor and his entourage, including Cixi, fled Beijing for the safety of Rehe in Manchuria.On hearing the news of the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, the Xianfeng Emperor (who was already showing signs of dementia) fell into a depression, turned heavily to alcohol and drugs, and became seriously ill.

On 22 August 1861 the Xianfeng Emperor died at Rehe Palace in the city of Rehe (now ChengdeHebei). Before his death, he summoned eight of his most prestigious ministers, headed by SushunZaiyuan, and Duanhua, and named them the “Eight Regent Ministers” to direct and support the future Emperor. His heir, the son of Noble Consort Yi (future Empress Dowager Cixi), was only five years old. On his deathbed, the Xianfeng Emperor summoned his Empress and Noble Consort Yi, and gave each of them a stamp. He hoped that when his son ascended the throne, his Empress and Noble Consort Yi would cooperate in harmony and, together, help the young emperor to grow and mature. It was also meant as a check on the power of the eight regents . Upon the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, his Empress Consort, aged 25, was elevated to the title Empress Dowager Ci’an (popularly known as the East Empress Dowager because she lived in the Eastern Zhong-Cui Palace), and Noble Consort Yi, aged 27, was elevated to the title Empress Dowager Cixi (popularly known as the West Empress Dowager because she lived inside the Western Chuxiu Palace).

Xinyou Coup: Ousting Sushun

File:The Cixi Imperial Dowager Empess of China (1).PNG

Empress Dowager Cixi is shown sitting on her throne inside her bedroom chamber, the Hall of Happiness and Longevity of the Summer Palace. The plaque hanging above Cixi is inscribed with her title in full, literally translated as “The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire, Cixi (kind and auspicious) Duanyou (upright and blessed) Kangyi (healthy and well-maintained) Zhaoyu (clear and pleasant) Zhuangcheng (solemn and sincere) Shougong (long-living and respectful) Qinxian (royal and sacrificial) Chongxi (magnanimous and prosperous).

By the time of the Xianfeng Emperor’s death, Empress Dowager Cixi had become a shrewd strategist. In Rehe, while waiting for an astrologically favorable time to transport the coffin back to Peking, Empress Dowager Cixi plotted to grab power. Cixi’s position as the lower Empress Dowager was neither influential nor legitimate when it came to political power. In addition, the young emperor was not yet an entity to be taken into political consideration. As a result, it became necessary for her to ally herself with other powerful figures. Taking advantage of the naïveté and good nature of the late emperor’s principal wife, the Empress Dowager Ci’an, Cixi suggested that they become co-reigning Empress Dowagers, with powers exceeding the Eight Regent Ministers.

Tensions grew among the Eight Regent Ministers, headed by Sushun, and the two Empress Dowagers. The ministers did not appreciate Cixi’s interference in political matters, and the frequent confrontations left the Empress Dowager Ci’an in a frustrated state, to the point where she refused to come to court audiences, leaving Empress Dowager Cixi to deal with the ministers alone. Secretly, Empress Dowager Cixi began collecting the support of talented ministers, soldiers, and others who were ostracized by the Eight Regent Ministers for personal or political reasons. Among them was Prince Gong, who had great ambitions and was at that time excluded from the power circle, and the Prince Chun, the sixth and seventh sons of the Daoguang Emperor, respectively. While she aligned herself with these Princes, a memorial came from Shandong asking for Cixi to “listen to politics behind the curtains”, i.e., asking Cixi to become the ruler. The same petition also asked Prince Gong to enter the political arena as a principal “aide to the Emperor.”

When the Emperor’s funeral procession left for Beijing, Cixi took advantage of her alliances with Prince Gong and Prince Chun. She and the boy Emperor returned to the capital before the rest of the party, along with Zaiyuan and Duanhua, two of the principal regents, while Sushun was left to accompany the deceased Emperor’s procession. Cixi’s early return to Beijing meant that she could plot further with Prince Gong, and ensure that the power base of the Eight Regent Ministers was divided between Sushun and his allies, Zaiyuan and Duanhua. History was re-written and the Regents were dismissed for having carried out incompetent negotiations with the “barbarians” which had caused Xianfeng Emperor to flee to Rehe ”greatly against his will,” among other charges. Empress Dowager Cixi and Prince Gong produced a document called the “Eight Guilts of Regent Ministers,” which included allegations such as altering the late Xianfeng Emperor‘s wills, causing his death, and stealing power from the two Empress Dowagers.

To show the world that she had high moral standards, Empress Dowager Cixi executed only three of the eight regent ministers. Prince Gong had suggested that Sushun and others be executed by the most painful method, known as slow slicing, but Dowager Cixi declined the suggestion and ordered that Sushun be beheaded, while the other two also marked for execution, Zaiyuan and Duanhua, were given white silks to allow them to commit suicide. In addition, Cixi refused outright the idea of executing the family members of the ministers, as would be done in accordance with Imperial tradition of an alleged usurper. Ironically, Qing Imperial tradition also dictated that women and princes were never to engage in politics. In breaking with tradition, Cixi became the first and only Qing Dynasty Empress to rule from “behind the curtains” (垂簾聽政).

This palace coup is known as the “Xinyou Palace Coup” (Chinese: 辛酉政變) in China after the name of the year 1861 in the Sexagenary cycle.


Slow slicing (simplified Chinesetraditional Chinesepinyinlíngchí, alternately transliterated Ling Chi or Leng T’che), also translated as the slow process, the lingering death, ordeath by a thousand cuts (simplified Chinesetraditional Chinese), was a form of execution used in China from roughly AD 900 until its abolition in 1905. In this form of execution, the condemned person was killed by using a knife to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time. The term língchí derives from a classical description of ascending a mountain slowly. Lingchi was reserved for crimes viewed as especially severe, such as treason and killing one’s parents. The process involved tying the person to be executed to a wooden frame, usually in a public place. The flesh was then cut from the body in multiple slices in a process that was not specified in detail in Chinese law and therefore most likely varied. In later times, opium was sometimes administered either as an act of mercy or as a way of preventing fainting. The punishment worked on three levels: as a form of public humiliation, as a slow and lingering death, and as a punishment after death.


File:Martyrerp 2.jpg

An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper, Le Monde Illustré, of the torture and execution of a French missionary in China by slow slicing.

Lingchi could be used for the torture and execution of a living person, or applied as an act of humiliation after death. It was meted out for offenses against the Confucian value system such as acts of treasonmass murder,parenticide or the murder of one’s master or employer.Emperors used it to threaten people and sometimes ordered it for minor offences. There were forced convictions and wrongful executions.Some emperors meted out this punishment to the family members of his enemies. While it is difficult to obtain accurate details of how the executions took place, they generally consisted of cuts to the arms, legs, and chest leading to amputation of limbs, followed by decapitation or a stab to the heart. If the crime was less serious or the executioner merciful, the first cut would be to the throat causing death; subsequent cuts served solely to dismember the corpse.

Art historian James Elkins argues that extant photos of the execution make obvious that the “death by division” (as it was termed by German criminologist R. Heindl) involved some degree of dismemberment while the subject was living. Elkins also argues that, contrary to the apocryphal version of “death by a thousand cuts”, the actual process could not have lasted long. The condemned individual is not likely to have remained conscious and aware (if even alive) after one or two severe wounds, so the entire process could not have included more than a “few dozen” wounds. In the Yuan Dynasty one hundred cuts were inflicted but by the Ming Dynasty there were records of three thousand incisions. Reliable eyewitnesses, like Meadows, describe a fast process lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Available photographic records seem to prove the speed of the event as the crowd remains consistent across the series of photographs. Moreover, these photographs show a striking contrast between the stream of blood that soaks the left flank of the victim and the lack of blood on the right side, possibly showing that the first or the second cut has reached the heart. The coup de grâce was all the more certain when the family could afford a bribe to have a stab to the heart inflicted first. Some emperors ordered three days’ of cutting whilst others may have ordered specific tortures before the execution, or a longer execution. For example, records show that during execution,Yuan Chonghuan was left shouting for half a day and then the sound stopped.The meat of the victims may also have been sold as Chinese medicine.As an official punishment, death by slicing may also have involved cutting up the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased’s ashes.

Western perceptions

File:Lingchi (cropped).jpg

Lingchi torture in Beijing around 1904

The western perception of língchí has often differed considerably from the actual practice, and some misconceptions persist to the present. The distinction between the sensationalized Western myth and the Chinese reality was noted by Westerners as early as 1895. That year, Australian traveler G.E. Morrison, who claimed to have witnessed an execution by slicing, wrote that “Ling Chi [was] commonly, and quite wrongly, translated as ‘death by slicing into 10,000 pieces’ — a truly awful description of a punishment whose cruelty has been extraordinarily misrepresented … The mutilation is ghastly and excites our horror as an example of barbarian cruelty; but it is not cruel, and need not excite our horror, since the mutilation is done, not before death, but after.

According to apocryphal lore, língchí began when the torturer, wielding an extremely sharp knife, began by putting out the eyes, rendering the condemned incapable of seeing the remainder of the torture and, presumably, adding considerably to the psychological terror of the procedure. Successive rather minor cuts chopped off ears, nose, tongue, fingers, toes and genitals before proceeding to grosser cuts that removed large portions of flesh from more sizable parts, e.g., thighs and shoulders. The entire process was said to last three days, and to total 3,600 cuts. The heavily carved bodies of the deceased were then put on a parade for a show in the public. Some victims were reportedly given doses ofopium, but accounts differ as to whether the drug was said to amplify or alleviate suffering.

J. M. Roberts, in Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 (2000), writes “the traditional punishment of death by slicing … became part of the western image of Chinese backwardness as the ‘death of a thousand cuts.’” Roberts then notes that slicing “was ordered, in fact, for K’ang Yu-Wei, a man termed the ‘Rousseau of China’, and a major advocate of intellectual and government reform in the 1890s.” (Roberts, p. 60, footnote 8)

Although officially outlawed by the Qing government in 1905, língchí became a widespread Western symbol of the Chinese penal system from the 1910s on, and in Zhao Erfeng‘s administration. Three sets of photographs shot by French soldiers in 1904-1905 were the basis for later mythification. The abolition was immediately enforced, and definite: no official sentences of língchí were performed in China after April 1905.

Regarding the use of opium, as related in the introduction to Morrison’s book, Sir Meyrick Hewlett insisted that “most Chinese people sentenced to death were given large quantities of opium before execution, and Morrison avers that a charitable person would be permitted to push opium into the mouth of someone dying in agony, thus hastening the moment of decease.” At the very least, such tales were deemed credible to British officials in China and other Western observers.


File:Martyrdom of Joseph Marchand.jpg

Execution of Joseph Marchand, Vietnam, 1835.

Emperors, ordered similar and less cruel tortures. Under Qin Er Shi and during the first Han dynasty, multiple tortures were applied to officials. Liu Ziye did to innocent officials. Gao Yang killed six people. An Lushan killed a man. Língchí is known in the Five Dynastiesperiod (907-960) and Gaozu of Later Jin abolished it. It first appeared in the Liao dynasty law codes, and was sometimes used. Emperor Tianzuo of Liao often executed people in this way during his rule. It became widespread in the Song Dynasty under Emperor Renzong of Song and Emperor Shenzong of Song.

Some officials often used that to torture the rebels.The punishment remained in the Qing Dynasty code of laws for persons convicted of high treason and other serious crimes. Língchí was abolished as a result of the 1905 revision of the Chinese penal code by Shen Jiaben (沈家本, 1840-1913. Reports from Qing dynasty jurists such as Shen Jiaben show that executioners’ customs varied, as the regular way to perform this penalty was not specified in detail in the Penal code.

This form of execution was also known from Vietnam, notably being used as the method of execution of the French missionary Joseph Marchand in 1835 as part of the repression following the unsuccessful Lê Văn Khôi revolt.

As Western countries moved to abolish similar punishments, some Westerners began to focus attention on the methods of execution used in China. As early as 1866, the year after the last recorded case of hanging, drawing, and quarteringThomas Francis Wade, then serving with the British diplomatic mission in China, unsuccessfully urged the abolition of língchí.

The first proposal for abolishing lingchi was submitted by Lu You 陸游(1125–1210) in a memorial to the Emperor under the Southern Song dynasty. Lu You’s elaborated argumentation against lingchi was piously copied and transmitted by generations of scholars, among them influential jurists of all dynasties, till the late Qing reformer Shen Jiaben introduced it in his 1905 memorial that obtained the abolition, eventually. This anti-lingchi trend met a more general attitude opposed to “cruel and unusual punishments’ (such as the exposure of the head) which the Tang had not included in the canonic table of the Five Punishments, and that defined the plainly legal ways of punishing crime. Hence the abolitionist trend is deeply ingrained in the Chinese legal tradition, rather than being purely derived from Western influences.

An 1858 account by Harper’s Weekly claimed the martyr Auguste Chapdelaine was killed by this method; in fact he was beheaded after death.

Famous executions

According to the Confucian principle of filial piety or xiào to alter one’s body or to cut the body is a form of unfilial practice (see Xiao Jing). Lingchi therefore contravenes the demands of xiao. In addition, to be cut to pieces meant that the body of the victim would not be “whole” in a spiritual life after death.

This method of execution became a fixture in the image of China among some Westerners. It appears in various accounts of Chinese cruelty, such as Harold Lamb‘s 1930s biography ofGenghis Khan.

Behind the Curtains

New era

Empress Dowager Cixi’s
Provincial Appointments c.1863
Province Governor 中文
Zhejiang Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠
Henan Zheng Yuanshan 鄭元善
Anhui Li Xuyi 李續宜
Hubei Yan Shusen 嚴樹森
Jiangxi Shen Baozhen 沈葆楨
Jiangsu Li Hongzhang 李鴻章
Guangxi Liu Changyou 劉長佑
Hunan Mao Hongbin 毛鴻賓

In November 1861, a few days following the coup, Cixi was quick to reward Yixin, the Prince Gong, for his help. He was made head of the General Affairs Office and the Internal Affairs Office, and his daughter was made a Gurun Princess, a title usually bestowed only on the Empress’s first-born daughter. Yixin’s allowance also increased twofold. However, Cixi avoided giving Yixin the absolute political power that princes such as Dorgon exercised during the Shunzhi Emperor‘s reign. As one of the first acts from behind the curtains, Cixi (nominally along with Ci’an) issued two important Imperial Edicts on behalf of the Emperor. The first stated that the two Empresses Dowager were to be the sole decision makers “without interference,” and the second changed the boy Emperor’s era name fromQixiang (祺祥; “Auspicious”) to Tongzhi (同治; “collective stable”).

Cleaning up the Bureaucracy

Cixi’s entrance as the absolute power figure in China came at a time of internal chaos and foreign challenges. The effects of the Second Opium War were still hovering over the country, as the Taiping Rebellion continued its seemingly unstoppable advance through China’s south, eating up the Qing Empire bit by bit. Internally, both the national bureaucracy and regional authorities were infested with rampant corruption. 1861 happened to be the year of official examinations, whereby officials of all levels presented their political reports from the previous three years. Cixi decided that the time was ripe for a bureaucratic overhaul, where she personally sought audience with all officials above the level of provincial governor, who had to report to her personally. Cixi took on part of the role usually given to theBureaucratic Affairs Department (吏部). Cixi also executed two prominent officials to serve as examples as a more immediate solution:Qingying, a military shilang who had tried to bribe his way out of demotion, and He Guiqing, then Viceroy of Liangjiang, who fled Changzhouin the wake of an incoming Taiping army as opposed to trying to defend the city.

Another significant challenge Cixi faced was the increasingly decrepit state of the country’s Manchu elite. Since the beginning of the dynasty most major positions at court had been held by Manchus, and Emperors had generally shown contempt for powerful Han Chinese. Cixi, again in a reversal of Imperial tradition, entrusted the country’s most powerful military unit against the Taiping army into the hands of a Han Chinese, Zeng Guofan. Additionally, in the next three years, Cixi appointed Han Chinese officials to become governors of all southern Chinese provinces, raising alarm bells in an administration traditionally fond of Manchu dominance.

Taiping Victory and Prince Gong

Empress Cixi


Under the command of Gen. Zeng Guofan, the victorious Xiang Army defeated the Taiping Army in a hard-fought battle at Tianjing (present-day Nanjing) in July 1864. Zeng Guofan was rewarded with the title of “Marquess Yiyong, First Class,” and his brother Zeng Guoquan, along with Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, all Han Chinese generals from the war, were rewarded respectively with their decorations and titles. With the Taiping threat receding, Cixi was focused on new internal threats to her power. Of special concern was the position of Yixin, thePrince Gong, and the Chief Policy Advisor (议政王) at Court. Yixin, whose loyalties stretched at least half of the country, also had effectively gathered under his command the support of all outstanding Han Chinese armies. In addition, Yixin controlled daily court affairs as the first-in-charge at the Grand Council as well as the Zongli Yamen, the de facto ministry of foreign affairs. With his increasing stature, Yixin was considered a serious threat to Cixi and her power.

Although the Prince was rewarded for his conduct and recommendation of Zeng Guofan before the Taiping defeat, Cixi was quick to move after Cai Shaoqi, a little-known official who was the recorder at court, who filed a memorial asking for Yixin’s resignation. Having built up a powerful base and a network of allies at court, Yixin considered the memorial insignificant. Cixi, however, took the memorial as a stepping stone to Yixin’s removal. In April 1865, under the pretext that Yixin had “improper court conduct before the two Empresses,” among a series of other charges, Yixin was dismissed from all his positions, but was allowed to keep his title. The dismissal, however, surprised the nobility and court officials, and brought about numerous petitions for his return. Yicong, Prince Tun, as well as Yixuan, the Prince Chun, both sought their brother’s reinstatement. Yixin himself, in an audience with the two Empresses, burst into tears . Bowing to popular pressure, Cixi allowed Yixin to return to his position as the head of the foreign ministry, but rid Yixin of his title of Chief Policy Advisor. Yixin would never return to political prominence again, and neither would the liberal and pro-reform policies of his time. Yixin’s demotion showed Cixi’s iron grip on Qing politics, and her lack of willingness to give up absolute power to anyone, including her most important ally in the Xinyou Coup, Prince Gong.

Foreign influence

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Empress Dowager Cixi with foreign ladies

China’s loss in the Second Opium War was undoubtedly a wake-up call for its imperial rulers. Cixi presided over a country whose military strategies, both on land and sea, and in terms of weaponry, were vastly outdated. In addition, there were significant difficulties in communications between China and the Western powers. Sensing an immediate threat from foreigners and realizing that China’s agricultural-based economy could not hope to compete with the industrial prowess of the West, Cixi made a decision that for the first time in Imperial Chinese history, China would learn from Western powers and import their knowledge and technology. At the time, three prominent Han Chinese officials, Zeng GuofanLi Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, had all begun industrial programs in the country’s southern regions. In supporting these programs, Cixi also decreed the opening of Tongwen Guan in 1862, a university-like institution in Beijing that hired foreigners as teachers and specialized in new-age topics such as astronomy and mathematics, as well as the English, French, and Russian languages. Groups of young boys were also sent abroad to the United States.

China’s “learn from foreigners” program quickly met with impediments. China’s military institutions were in desperate need of reform, and Cixi’s solution, under the advice of officials at court, was to purchase seven British warships. When the warships arrived in China, however, they carried with them boatloads of British sailors, all under British command. The Chinese were enraged at this “international joke,” negotiations broke down between the two parties, and China returned the warships to Britain, where they were to be auctioned off. Scholars sometimes attribute the failure of China’s foreign programs to Cixi’s conservative attitude and old methods of thinking, and contend that Cixi would learn only so much from the foreigners, provided it did not infringe upon her own power. Under the pretext that a railway was too loud and would “disturb the Emperor’s tombs,” Cixi forbade its construction. When construction went ahead anyway in 1877 under Li Hongzhang’s recommendation, Cixi asked that they be pulled by horse-drawn carts. Cixi was especially alarmed at the liberal thinking of people who had studied abroad, and saw that it posed a new threat to her power. In 1881, Cixi put a halt to sending children abroad to study, and withdrew her formerly open attitude towards foreigners.

Tongzhi’s Marriage and Rule

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Katherine Carl’s depiction of the Manchurian court ladies and Empress Dowager Cixi (arriving via the sedan in the opening gate)

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Depiction of Cixi in a barge with court ladies (published in 1905)

In 1872, when the Emperor was 17, under the guidance of the Empress Dowager Ci’an of the East, the Tongzhi Emperor was married to Lady Alute (the Jiashun Empress). Empress Jiashun Alute’s grandfather had been an enemy of the Empress Dowager Cixi during the Xinyou Coup. From the beginning, the relationship between Cixi and the Empress was tense and often a source of irritation to Cixi.

Lady Alute was an Empress, the principal and legal wife of the Emperor. She was the favorite of the principal Empress Dowager Ci’an of the East, and of Ci’an’s legal (if not maternal) son, the Emperor Tongzhi. Alute’s spies once warned her to be more agreeable to the secondary Empress Dowager Cixi of the West, as Cixi was the one who truly held the power with Prince Gong. Empress Alute’s reply was, “I am principal wife and empress, having been carried through the front door with pomp and circumstance, as mandated by our ancestors. The Empress Dowager Cixi was only a lowly concubine, having entered this house by the side door.”

Emperor Tongzhi proceeded to spend most of his time with his new Empress Alute, who was always with Tongzhi’s favorite mother, Empress Dowager Ci’an, at the expense of his four Imperial consorts and concubines, including the Lady Fuca, Noble Consort Hui, who was chosen by Cixi. Cixi became hostile to the Empress Alute and told her and her husband that they were both still young and should spend more time studying how to effectively manage the country. Cixi also spied on Tongzhi using eunuchs. After her warning was ignored, Empress Dowager Cixi ordered Tongzhi to concentrate on ruling the country, and Tongzhi purportedly spent several months following Cixi’s order in isolation at Qianqing Palace.

The young Emperor, who could no longer cope with his grief and loneliness, grew more and more ill-tempered. He began to treat his servants badly and beat them for minor offenses. Under the combined influence of court eunuchs and Zaicheng, the eldest son of the Prince Gong, who was also Tongzhi’s contemporary and best friend, Tongzhi would get out of the palace to seek pleasure in unrestricted parts of Beijing. For several evenings the Emperor disguised himself as a commoner and secretly spent the nights in thebrothels of Beijing. The Emperor’s sexual habits became common talk among court officials and commoners, and there are many records of Tongzhi’s escapades.

Tongzhi received a rigorous education from four famous teachers of Cixi’s own choosing, in addition to making Mianyu his supervisor. Namely, Li HongzaoQi JunzaoWeng Xincun (later his son Weng Tonghe, and Woren) were all Imperial teachers who instructed the Emperor in the classics and various old texts for which the Emperor displayed little or no interest.

The pressure and stress put upon the young Emperor made him despise learning for the majority of his life. According to Weng Tonghe’s diary, the Emperor could not read a memorial in full sentences by age sixteen. Worried about her son’s inability, Cixi only pressured Tongzhi more. When he was given personal rule at age 18, in November 1873 (four years behind the usual custom), Tongzhi proved to be an incompetent Emperor.

Tongzhi made two important policy decisions during his short stint of rule, lasting from 1873 to 1875. First, he decreed that the Imperial Summer Palace, destroyed by the English and French in the Second Opium War, would be completely rebuilt under the pretext that it was a gift to Cixi and Ci’an. Historians also suggest that it was an attempt to drive Cixi from the Forbidden City so he could rule without interference in policy or his private affairs.

The Imperial treasury was almost depleted at the time from internal strife and foreign wars, and as a result Tongzhi asked the Board of Finance to forage for the necessary funds, as well as members of the nobility and high officials to donate their share. Once construction began, Tongzhi checked its progress on a monthly basis, and would often spend days away from court, indulging himself in pleasures outside of the Forbidden City.

Uneasy about the Emperor’s neglect of national affairs, Princes Yixin and Yixuan (Prince Chun), along with the Court’s top officials, submitted a joint memorial asking the Emperor to cease the construction of the Summer Palace, among other recommendations. Tongzhi, unwilling to submit to criticism, issued an Imperial Edict in August 1874 to rid Yixin of his Prince title and be demoted to become a commoner. Two days later, Yicong, Yixuan, Yihui, JingshouYikuangWenxiang, Baoju, and Grand Councilors Shen Guifen and Li Hongzao were all to be stripped of their respective titles and jobs.

Seeing the mayhem unfold from behind the scenes, Cixi and Ci’an made an unprecedented appearance at court directly criticizing the Emperor for his wrongful actions, and asked him to withdraw the Edict; Cixi said that “without Prince Gong, the situation today would not exist for you and me.

Feeling a grand sense of loss at court and unable to assert his authority, the Emperor returned to his former habits. It was rumored that the Emperor caught syphilis and became visibly ill. The doctors spread a rumor that the Emperor had caught smallpox, and proceeded to give medical treatment accordingly. Within a few weeks, on 13 January 1875, the Emperor died. The Jiashun Empress followed suit in March. Judging from a modern medical perspective the onset of syphilis comes in stages, thus the Emperor’s quick death does not seem to reflect its symptoms. Therefore most historians maintain that Tongzhi did, in fact, die from smallpox. Regardless, by 1875, Cixi was back onto the helm of imperial power.

Regency over the Guangxu Emperor

New Challenges

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Emperor Guangxu (literally Glorious Succession)

Tongzhi died without a male heir, a circumstance that created an unprecedented succession crisis in the dynastic line. Members of the generation above were considered unfit, as they could not, by definition, be the successor of their nephew. Therefore, the new Emperor had to be from a generation below or the same generation as Tongzhi. After considerable disagreement between the two Dowagers, Zaitian, the first-born of the Prince Chun Yixuan and Cixi’s sister, then aged four, was to become the new Emperor. 1875 was declared the era of Guangxu, or the reign ofGlorious Succession. Young Zaitian was taken from his home and for the remainder of his life would be cut completely off from his family. While addressing Ci’an conventionally as Huang O’niang (Empress Mother), Zaitian was forced to address Cixi as Qin Baba (親爸爸; lit. “Biological Dad”), in order to enforce an image that she was the fatherly power figure in the house. The Guangxu Emperor began his education when he was aged five, taught by Imperial Tutor Weng Tonghe, with whom he would develop a lasting bond.

The sudden death of Empress Dowager Ci’an in April 1881 brought Cixi a new challenge. Ci’an took little interest in running state business, but was the decision maker in most family affairs. Owing to possible conflict between Cixi and Ci’an over the execution of An Dehai or a possible will from the late Xianfeng Emperor issued exclusively to Ci’an, rumours began circulating at court that Cixi had poisoned Ci’an . During March 1881 Ci’an fell ill and Cixi became the only regent at Court, and on the Imperial records, Ci’an appeared sick on the morning of 11 April, and was dead by the evening. The circumstances indeed looked suspicious. Because of a lack of evidence, however, historians are reluctant to believe that Ci’an was poisoned by Cixi, but instead choose to believe that the cause of death was a sudden stroke, as validated by traditional Chinese medicine. Ci’an’s death meant that the balanced power structure was now tipped completely in Cixi’s favor, and Prince Gong’s position was considerably weakened.

The once fierce and determined Prince Gong, frustrated by Cixi’s iron grip on power, did little to question Cixi on state affairs, and supported Manchu involvement in the Sino-French War. Cixi used China’s loss in the war as a pretext for getting rid of Prince Gong and other important decision makers in the Grand Council in 1885. She downgraded him to “advisor,” and promoted the more easily influenced Yixuan, Prince Chun. After being appointed President of the Navy, Prince Chun, in a sign of unswerving loyalty to Cixi, but in reality a move to protect his son, the new Emperor, moved funds from the military to reconstruct the Imperial Summer Palace outside of Beijing city as a place for Cixi’s retirement. Prince Chun did not want Cixi to interfere with his son Guangxu’s affairs once he came of age. Cixi showed no opposition to the construction of the palace.

For her sixtieth birthday in 1895, Empress Dowager Cixi was given ten million taels of silver, which many believe was used to furnish herSummer Palace. Although the Chinese Navy had recently lost most of its modern warships in the 1894 First Sino-Japanese War, and urgently needed the money to rebuild a high-tech fleet, it is a common misconception that Empress Dowager Cixi instead chose to use the money for her own pleasure. In fact, the sum of money would have been used to pay for public events and as gifts to the many favorite princes, courtiers, viceroys, governors, mayors, magistrates, and other officials as payment for their services. And, Empress Dowager Cixi canceled her celebration, which upset many nobles, gentry and others who had expected generous payment.

The Guangxu Emperor’s accession

Guangxu technically gained the right to rule at the age of 16 in 1887 after Cixi issued an edict for Guangxu to have his accession to rule ceremony. Because of her prestige and power, however, court officials voiced their opposition to Guangxu’s personal rule, citing the Emperor’s youth as the main reason. ShiduoYixuan, and Weng Tonghe, each with a different motive, asked Guangxu’s accession to be postponed until a later date. Cixi, with her reputed reluctance, accepted the “advice” and legitimized her continued rule through a new legal document that allowed her to “aid” the Guangxu Emperor in his rule indefinitely.

Cixi would slowly let go of her iron grip on power as the court prepared for the Guangxu Emperor’s wedding ceremony in 1889. By then the Guangxu Emperor was already 18, older than the conventional marital age for Emperors. Prior to the wedding, a large fire engulfed the Gate of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City, following a trend of natural disasters in recent years, which according to Chinese political theory meant that the current rulers were losing the “Mandate of Heaven“.

In another political move, Cixi forced Guangxu to choose Jingfen (later the Empress Dowager Longyu), her niece, to become the Empress, against Guangxu’s will. In later years, however, Guangxu would prefer to spend more time with Consort Zhen, neglecting his Empress, much to Cixi’s dismay. In 1894, Cixi, citing intervention in political affairs as the main reason, but in reality fearful that Consort Zhen had become a liberal influence on the Emperor, flogged and punished Consort Zhen. Even after Guangxu began formal rule at age 19, Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing for a period of time at the Imperial Summer Palace which she had ordered Guangxu’s father to construct, with the official intention not to intervene in politics. Guangxu paid visits to her, along with the entourage of court officials, every second or third day, where major political decisions would be made.


Hundred Days’ Reform

After taking power, the Guangxu Emperor was more reform-minded than the conservative-leaning Empress Dowager Cixi. After a humiliating defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, during which China’s Beiyang Navy was crushed by the Japanese forces, the Qing government faced numerous unprecedented challenges internally and abroad, with its very existence at stake. Under the influence of reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, Guangxu believed that by learning from constitutional monarchies like Japan and Germany, China would become more powerful politically and economically. In June 1898, the Guangxu Emperor began the Hundred Days’ Reform (戊戌变法), aimed at a series of sweeping changes politically, legally, and socially. For a brief time, after the supposed retirement of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the Guangxu Emperor issued edicts for a massive number of far-reaching modernizing reforms.

The reforms, however, were too sudden for a China still under significant neo-Confucian influence, and displeased Cixi as it served as a serious check on her power. Some government and military officials warned Cixi that the ming-shih (reformation bureau) had been geared toward conspiracy. Allegations of treason against the Emperor, as well as suspected Japanese influence within the reform movement, including a suspicious visit from the Japanese Prime Minister, led Empress Dowager Cixi to resume the role of regent and once again take control of the country.

In another coup d’etat carried out by General Ronglu‘s personnel on 21 September 1898, the Guangxu Emperor was taken to Ocean Terrace, a small palace on an island in the middle of Zhongnanhai linked to the rest of the Forbidden City with only a controlled causeway. Empress Dowager Cixi would follow with an edict dictating the Guangxu Emperor’s total disgrace and “not being fit to be Emperor”. The Guangxu Emperor’s reign had effectively come to an end.

A crisis followed in the Qing court on the issue of abdication. However, bowing to increasing western pressure and general civil discontent over the issue, Cixi did not forcibly remove Guangxu from the throne, although she attempted crowning Punji, a boy of fourteen who was from a close branch of the Imperial family, as the crown prince. The Guangxu era nominally continued until 1908, but the Emperor lost all honours, respect, power, and privileges, including his freedom of movement. Most of his supporters, including his former tutor Weng Tonghe, and the man he had recommended, Kang Youwei, were exiled, while six prominent reformers led by Tan Sitong were executed in public by Empress Dowager Cixi. Kang continued to work for a more progressive Qing Empire while in exile, remaining loyal to the Guangxu Emperor and hoping eventually to restore him to power. His efforts would prove to be in vain.

The Boxer Uprising and Late Qing Reforms

In 1900, the Boxer Uprising broke out in northern China. Perhaps fearing further foreign intervention, Cixi threw in her support to these anti-foreign bands, making an official announcement of her support for the movement and a formal declaration of war on the European powers. TheManchu General Ronglu deliberately sabotaged the performance of the Imperial army during the rebellion. When Dong Fuxiang’s Muslim troops were able and eager to destroy the foreign military forces in the legations, Ronglu stopped them from doing so. The Manchu princeZaiyi was xenophobic and was friends with Dong Fuxiang. Zaiyi wanted artillery for Dong Fuxiang’s troops to destroy the legations. Ronglu blocked the transfer of artillery to Zaiyi and Dong, preventing them from destroying the legations. When artillery was finally supplied to the Imperial Army and Boxers, it was only done so in limited amounts, Ronglu deliberately held back the rest of them. The Chinese forces defeated the Allied Western invasion force at the Battle of Langfang and scored numerous small victories around Tianjin such as the Battle of Beicang. Due to the fact that Moderates at the Qing court tried to appease the foreigners by moving the Kansu braves out of their way, the Allied army was able to march into Beijing and seize the capital.


During the war, Cixi displayed concern about China’s situation and foreign aggression, saying, “Perhaps their magic is not to be relied upon; but can we not rely on the hearts and minds of the people? Today China is extremely weak. We have only the people’s hearts and minds to depend upon. If we cast them aside and lose the people’s hearts, what can we use to sustain the country?” The Chinese people were almost unanimous in their support for the Boxers, due to the Western Allied invasion.

When Cixi received an ultimatum demanding that China surrender total control over all its military and financial affairs to foreigners, she defiantly stated before the entire Grand Council, “Now they [the Powers] have started the aggression, and the extinction of our nation is imminent. If we just fold our arms and yield to them, I would have no face to see our ancestors after death. If we must perish, why not fight to the death?It was at this point that Cixi began to blockade the legations with the Peking Field Force armies, which began the siege.

Cixi stated that “I have always been of the opinion, that the allied armies had been permitted too escape too easily in 1860. Only a united effort was then necessary to have given China the victory. Today, at last, the opportunity for revenge as come.”, and said that millions of Chinese would join the cause of fighting the foreigners since the Manchus had provided “great benefits” on China.

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Empress ‘Jade Boat’ of Purity and Ease

During the Battle of Peking, the Entire Chinese Imperial Court, including the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu, safely escaped from Beijing and evacuated to Xi’an in Shaanxi province, deep beyond protective mountain passes where the foreigners could not reach. The Foreigners were unable to pursue, and had no such orders to do so, so they decided no action should be taken. The Muslim Kansu Braves protected the Imperial Court from the foreigners, Xi’an was deep in Chinese Muslim territory. Several foreigners commented that the Chinese shrewdly outsmarted the foreign forces, and succeeded in making the foreigners look stupid by escaping from their grasp, where they could not attack them. The Qing dynasty was by no means defeated when the Allies took control of Beijing. They Allies had to temper their demands they sent in a message to Xi’an to get the Dowager Empress to agree with them, among them was that China did not have to give up any land at all. Many of the Dowager Empress’s advisers in the Imperial Court insisted that the war be carried on against the foreigners, arguing that China could defeated the foreigners since it was disloyal and traitorous people within China who allowed Beijing and Tianjin to be captured by the Allies, and the interior of China was impenetrable. Dong Fuxiang was also recommended by them to continue fighting. The Dowager was practical, and decided that the terms were generous enough for her to acquiesce and stop the war, when she was assured of her continued reign after the war. The Western powers needed a government strong enough to suppress further anti-foreign movements but too weak to act on its own; they supported the continuation of the Qing, rather than allowing it to disintegrate. Cixi turned once more to Li Hongzhang to negotiate. Li was agreed to sign the Boxer Protocol, which demanded the presence of an international military force in Beijing and the payment of £67 million (almost $333 million) in war reparations. The U.S. used its share of the war indemnity to fund the creation of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University. The Emperor and the Empress Dowager did not return to the capital from Xi’an until January 1902.

Upon their return, however, the Empress Dowager made a remarkable reversal, wooing the powers she had attempted to destroy and supporting the policies she had suppressed. First she invited the wives of the diplomatic corps for an afternoon tea in the Forbidden City, had her portrait painted in oils, and promoted the very reformist officials who had resisted her orders in 1900, principally Yuan Shikai. High officials were dispatched to Japan and Europe to gather facts and draw up plans for sweeping administrative reforms in law, education, government structure, and social policy, many of which were modeled on the reforms of the Meiji Restoration. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 was only the most visible of these sweeping reforms. Ironically, Cixi sponsored the implementation of a reform program more radical than the one proposed by the reformers she had beheaded in 1898.

In 1903, a strategy emerged to use photographic portraiture to rehabilitate her public image. Cixi allowed a young aristocratic photographer named Xunling to take elaborately staged shots of her and her court, designed to convey imperial authority, aesthetic refinement, and religious piety. As the only photographic series taken of Cixi—the supreme leader of China for more than forty-five years—it represents a unique convergence of Qing court pictorial traditions, modern photographic techniques, and Western standards of artistic portraiture. The rare glass plates have been blown up into full-size images, included in the exhibition “The Empress Dowager” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery,Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Death and final resting place


The corpse of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

Empress Dowager Cixi died in the Hall of Graceful Bird at the Middle Sea (Chinese:中海儀鸞殿) of Zhongnanhai on 15 November 1908, after having installed Puyi as the new Emperor of the Qing Dynasty on November 14. Her death came only a day after the death of the Guangxu Emperor.

On 4 November 2008, forensic tests were reported that the death of the Emperor was caused by acute arsenic poisoning. China Daily quoted a historian, Dai Yi, who speculated that Cixi may have known of her imminent death and may have worried that Guangxu would continue his reforms after her death. CNN has recently reported that the level of arsenic in his remains were 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people.

Empress Dowager Cixi was interred amidst the Eastern Qing Tombs (Chinese: 清東陵), 125 km (78 mi) east of Beijing, in the Dong Dingling (Chinese: 東定陵), along with Empress Dowager Ci’an. More precisely, Empress Dowager Ci’an lies in the Pu Xiang Yu Ding Dong Ling (Chinese: 普祥峪定東陵) (literally: the “Tomb East of the Ding Ling Tomb in the Broad Valley of Good Omen”), while Empress Dowager Cixi built herself the much larger Pu Tuo Yu Ding Dong Ling (Chinese: 菩陀峪定東陵) (literally: the “Tomb East of the Ding Ling Tomb in the Potala Valley”). The Dingling tomb (literally: the “Tomb of quietude”) is the tomb of the Xianfeng Emperor, the spouse of Empress Dowager Ci’an and Empress Dowager Cixi, which is located indeed west of the Ding Dong Ling. The Putuo Valley owes its name to Mount Putuo, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China.

Empress Dowager Cixi, unsatisfied with her tomb, ordered its destruction and reconstruction in 1895. The new tomb was a lavish grandiose complex of temples, gates, and pavilions, covered with gold leaf, and with gold and gilded-bronze ornaments hanging from the beams and the eaves. In July 1928, Empress Dowager Cixi’s tomb was occupied by warlord and Kuomintang general Sun Dianying and his army who methodically stripped the complex of its precious ornaments, then dynamited the entrance to the burial chamber, opened Empress Dowager Cixi’s coffin, threw her corpse (said to have been found intact) on the floor, and stole all the jewels contained in the coffin, as well as the massive pearl that had been placed in Empress Dowager Cixi’s mouth to protect her corpse from decomposing (in accordance with Chinese tradition). Urban legend states that the large pearl on Empress Dowager Cixi’s crown was offered by Sun Dianying to Kuomintang leaderChiang Kai-shek and ended up as an ornament on the gala shoes of Chiang’s wife, Soong May-ling, but this is unconfirmed.

After 1949, the complex of Empress Dowager Cixi’s tomb was restored by the People’s Republic of China, and it is still today one of the most impressive imperial tombs of China.


  • Paternal Great-Grandfather
    • Yehenara Jilang A (葉赫那拉·吉郎阿)
  • Paternal Grandfather
    • Yehenara Jingrui (葉赫那拉·景瑞)
  • Father
    • Yehenara Huizheng (葉赫那拉·惠徵) (29 September 1805 – ?), Manchu official of the Blue Bordered Banner, served in Shanxi Provincebefore becoming Commissioner of Anhui
  • Mother
    • Lady Fuca (富察氏), Huizheng’s primary wife, daughter of Fuca Huixian (富察·惠顯)
  • Husband
  • Son

Siblings and their descendants

    • 1st younger sister: Yehenara Wanzhen (葉赫那拉·婉貞) (13 September 1841 – 19 June 1896), married Yixuan, Prince Chun
      • 1st son: Zairong (載瀚) (1 February 1865 – 9 December 1866)
      • 2nd son: Zaitian (載湉) (14 August 1871 – 14 November 1908), became the Guangxu Emperor
      • 3rd son: unnamed (13 February 1875 – 14 February 1875)
      • 4th son: Zaiguang (載洸) (28 November 1880 – 18 May 1884)
    • 2nd younger sister: Lady Yehenara (葉赫那拉氏), married Yixun (奕勛) (second younger brother of Yikuang, Prince Qing)
    • 1st younger brother: Yehenara Zhaoxiang (葉赫那拉·照祥)
      • Son: Yehenara Deshan (葉赫那拉·德善)
    • 2nd younger brother: Yehenara Guixiang (葉赫那拉·桂祥)
      • 1st daughter: Yehenara Jingrong (葉赫那拉·靜榮), married Zaize, Duke of Zhen in 1894
      • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Jingfen (葉赫那拉·靜芬) (1868 – 22 February 1913), married her first cousin, the Guangxu Emperor on 26 February 1889 and became Empress Dowager Longyu (known posthumously as Empress Xiao Ding Jing)
      • 3rd daughter: Yehenara Jingfang (葉赫那拉·靜芳), married Zaiyi
        • Son: Pujun (溥儁) (1885–1942)
          • 1st son: Yuwei (毓巍) (September 1908 – May 1998)
            • 1st son: Henglu (恆祿)
            • 2nd son: Hengyu (恆玉)
            • 3rd son: Hengjun (恆均)
              • Son: Luowei (羅偉)
          • 2nd son: Yuling (毓嶺)
      • 1st son: Yehenara Deheng (葉赫那拉·德恒), courtesy name Jianting (健亭)
        • 1st daughter: Yehenara Shumin (葉赫那拉·淑敏)
        • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Shuqin (葉赫那拉·淑琴)
        • Son: Yehenara Enxian (葉赫那拉·恩賢)
      • 2nd son: Yehenara Deqi (葉赫那拉·德祺), courtesy name Shouzhi (壽芝)
        • 1st daughter: Yehenara Xixian (葉赫那拉·希賢)
        • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Xiyan (葉赫那拉·希嬿)
        • 1st son: Yehenara Enyin (葉赫那拉·恩印)
        • 2nd son: Yehenara Enxian (葉赫那拉·恩顯)
        • 3rd son: Yehenara Enmin (葉赫那拉·恩民)
        • 4th son: Yehenara Enzhi (葉赫那拉·恩植)
    • 3rd younger brother: Yehenara Fuxiang (葉赫那拉·福祥)
      • Son: Yehenara Dekui (葉赫那拉·德奎), courtesy name Wenbo (文伯)
        • 1st daughter: Yehenara Enhua (葉赫那拉·恩華)
        • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Enxiu (葉赫那拉·恩秀)
        • 1st son: Yehenara Enquan (葉赫那拉·恩銓)
        • 2nd son: Yehenara Enhui (葉赫那拉·恩輝)
        • 3rd son: Yehenara Enyao (葉赫那拉·恩耀)
        • 4th son: Yehenara Enguang (葉赫那拉·恩光)

Names of Empress Dowager Cixi

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The Room of Beautiful Scenery (Part of Empress Dowager Cixi’s western Chu-Xiu Palace), inside which the Imperial Concubine Yi (the future Empress Dowager Cixi) gave birth to the futureTongzhi Emperor.

The name by which she is most frequently known and the name used in most modern texts is simply “Cixi”, which is neither her birth name nor family name. It is an “honorific name” given to her in 1861 after her son ascended the throne. Empress Dowager Cixi’s name at birth is not known, although a recent book published by one of Cixi’s brother’s descendants seems to suggest that it was Xingzhen (Chinese: 杏貞; Wade-GilesHsingchen). The first occurrence of her name is at the time she entered the Forbidden City in September 1851, where she was recorded as “the Lady Yehenara, daughter of Huizheng” (Chinese: 惠徵). Thus, she was called by her clan’s name, the Yehe-Nara clan, as was customary for Manchu girls. On entering the Forbidden City, she was a preparative concubine (Chinese: 秀女).

After her sexual union with the Xianfeng Emperor, she was made a concubine of the fifth rankNoble Person, a.k.a. “Worthy Lady” (Chinese: 貴人), and was given the name Yi (懿,meaning “good”, “exemplary”, “virtuous”). Her name was thus “Noble Person of Yi”, orWorthy Lady Yi (Chinese: 懿貴人). At the end of December 1854 or the beginning of January 1855, she was promoted to concubine of the fourth rank, Imperial Concubine (Chinese: 嬪), so that her new name was Imperial Concubine Yi (Chinese: 懿嬪).

On 27 April 1856, Yehenara gave birth to a son, the only son of Xianfeng, and was immediately made Noble Consort Yi” (Chinese: 懿妃). Finally, in February 1857 she was again elevated and made “Noble Imperial Consort Yi” (Chinese: 懿貴妃).

In the end of August 1861, following the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, her five-year-old son became the new Emperor, known as the Tongzhi Emperor. Empress Dowager Cixi, as biological mother of the new emperor, was officially made Divine Mother Empress Dowager (Chinese: 聖母皇太后). She was also given the honorific name Cixi (Chinese: 慈禧), meaning “Motherly and Auspicious”. As for the Empress Consort, she was made “Mother Empress Dowager” (Chinese: 母后皇太后), a title giving her precedence over Empress Dowager Cixi, and she was given the honorific name Empress Dowager Ci’an (Chinese: 慈安), meaning “Motherly and Calm”.

On 7 occasions after 1861, Empress Dowager Cixi was given additional honorific names (two Chinese characters at a time), as was customary for Emperors and Empresses, until by the end of her reign her name was a long string of 16 characters starting with Cixi (as Empress Dowager she had the right to nine additions, giving a total of 20 characters, had she lived long enough for it). At the end of her life, her official name was:

  • (Chinese: 大清國當今慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙聖母皇太后)

which reads: “The Current Divine Mother Empress Dowager Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi of the Great Qing Empire”.

The short form was The Current Divine Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire

(Chinese: 大清國當今聖母皇太后)

At the time, Empress Dowager Cixi was addressed as “Venerable Buddha” (Chinese: 老佛爺),literally “Master Old Buddha”, a term used for all the Emperors of the Qing Dynasty. At official and ceremonial occasions, the phrase Long Live the Empress Dowager for ten thousand years (Chinese: 大清國當今聖母皇太后萬歲萬歲萬萬歲), which is by convention, only used by Emperors. The convention for Empress Dowagers of imperial China was usually Long live for one thousand years.

At her death in 1908, Empress Dowager Cixi was given a posthumous name which combines the honorific names that she gained during her lifetime with new names added just after her death. This is the name that is usually used on official documents to refer to an Empress. This long form of the posthumous name is:

  • (Chinese: 孝欽慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙配天興聖顯皇太后),

which reads: Empress Xiao-Qin Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi Pei-Tian Xing-Sheng Xian. This long name is still the one that can be seen on Cixi’s tomb today. The short form of her posthumous name is: Empress Xiao Qin Xian (孝欽顯皇后).

Historical opinions

File:The Portrait of the Qing Dynasty Cixi Imperial Dowager Empress of China in the 1900s.PNG

One of the historical oil paintings by Western artists depicting Empress Dowager Cixi

The traditional view of the Empress Dowager Cixi was that of a devious despot who contributed in no small part to China’s slide into corruption, anarchy, and revolution. During Cixi’s time, she used her power to accumulate vast quantities of money, bullion, antiques and jewelry, using the revenues of the state as her own. By the end of her reign she had amassed a huge personal fortune, stashing away some eight and a half million pounds sterling in London banks. The lavish palaces, gardens and lakes built by Cixi were hugely extravagant at a time when China was verging on bankruptcy. The recent discovery that her nephew died of acute arsenic poisoning casts a sinister shadow on the events of her reign, as do the many examples of her ruthless elimination of enemies throughout her life, from Sushun and his entourage to the martyrs of the 100 Days’ Reform to Empress Alute and the Pearl Concubine, whether or not the details were embellished by critics.

Katharine Carl

Katharine Carl spent some ten months with the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1903 to paint her portrait for the St. Louis Exposition. Two years later she published a book about her experience, titled With the Empress Dowager. In the book’s introduction, Carl says she wrote the book because “After I returned to America, I was constantly seeing in the newspapers (and hearing of) statements ascribed to me which I never made.

In her book, Katharine Carl describes the Empress Dowager Cixi as a kind and considerate woman for her station. Empress Dowager Cixi, though shrewd, had great presence, charm, and graceful movements resulting in “an unusually attractive personality”. Carl wrote of the Dowager’s love of dogs and of flowers, as well as boating, Chinese opera and her Chinese water pipes and European cigarettes. Carl also made note of Empress Dowager Cixi’s loyalty, describing the case of “a Chinese woman who nursed Her Majesty through a long illness, about twenty-five years since, and saved her life by giving her mother’s milk to drink. Her Majesty, who never forgets a favor, has always kept this woman in the Palace. Being a Chinese, she had bound feet. Her Majesty, who cannot bear to see them even, had her feet unbound and carefully treated, until now she can walk comfortably. Her Majesty has educated the son, who was an infant at the time of her illness, and whose natural nourishment she partook of. This young man is already a Secretary in a good yamen(government office).”

File:The Portrait of the Qing Dynasty Cixi Imperial Dowager Empress of China by an Imperial Painter 3.JPG

Katharine Carl’s oil painting of the Imperial Dowager Empress.

Sterling Seagrave

Seagrave argues that most of the more sensational stories of Empress Dowager Cixi’s life can be traced to the boasting, self-important “Wild Fox” Kang Youwei and his cronies who, never having met the Empress Dowager, concocted stories of plots and poisonings and passed them on to the Western press. Many other “details” of her life are based on accounts by J. O. P. Bland and known forger Edmund Backhouse. As life in the Forbidden City remained a mystery for most Westerners, these stories created by Kang and Backhouse (some up to 30 years after the supposed events) were used by many 20th century historians to paint a misleading picture of the Empress Dowager.

In contrast, Seagrave portrays Empress Dowager Cixi as a woman stuck between the xenophobic Ironhats faction, made up of Manchu nobility wanting to maintain Manchu dominance and remove Western influences from China at all cost, and more moderate influences trying to cope with China’s problems on a more realistic footing, such as Prince Gong in Cixi’s earlier days. The Empress Dowager, Seagrave argues, did not crave power but simply acted to balance these influences and protect the Dynasty as best she could.

Lei Chia-sheng

According to research by Professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖), during the Hundred Days’ Reform (戊戌变法), former prime minister of Japan Itō Hirobumi (伊藤博文) arrived in China on 11 September 1898. Almost at the same time, British missionary Timothy Richard was invited to Beijing by Kang Youwei. Richard suggested that China should hand over some political power to Itō in order to help push the reforms further. On 18 September, Richard convinced Kang Youwei to adopt a plan by which China would join a federation composed of China, Japan, the United States, and England. This suggestion did not reflect the policies of the countries concerned. It was Timothy Richard’s (and perhaps Itō Hirobumi’s) trick to convince China to hand over national rights. Kang Youwei nonetheless asked fellow reformers Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Song Bolu (宋伯魯) to report this plan to the Guangxu Emperor. On 20 September, Yang sent a memorial to this effect to the Emperor. In another memorial written the next day, Song Bolu also advocated the formation of a federation and the sharing of the diplomatic, fiscal, and military powers of the four countries under a hundred-man committee. Lei Chia-sheng argues that the plot was the reason why Cixi, who had just returned from the Summer Palace on Sept. 19, decided to put an end to the reforms with the 21 September coup.

Still according to Lei Chia-sheng’s findings, on 13 October, British ambassador Sir C. MacDonald reported to his government about the Chinese situation, saying that Chinese reforms had been damaged by Kang Youwei and his friends’ actions. British diplomat Baurne claimed in his own report that Kang was a dreamer who had been seduced by Timothy Richard’s sweet words. Baurne thought Richard was a plotter. The British and American governments were unaware of the “federation” plot, which seems to have been Timothy Richard’s personal idea. Because Richard’s partner Itō Hirobumi had been Prime Minister of Japan, the Japanese government might have known about Richard’s plan, but there is no evidence to this effect.

Princess Der Ling

Der Ling, whose Christian name was Elisabeth Antoinette, was born in Beijing in June 1885 and died in Berkeley, California in November 1944. She was the eldest daughter of Yu Keng, an official of the Chinese-Martial (hanjun) Plain White Banner, and his wife, Louisa Pierson, daughter of an American merchant in Shanghai and his Chinese consort.

When Der Ling’s father was recalled from Paris, where he had been Chinese minister, in 1903, Der Ling, her sister Rong Ling (later the wife of General Dan Paochao) and their mother were summoned by Cixi to become court ladies – something between ladies in waiting and translators/hostesses for when the Empress Dowager had foreign female guests from Beijing’s Legation Quarter.

Der Ling served at court from March 1903 till October 1905, and married an American, Thaddeus Cohu White, in 1907.

After Cixi’s death in 1908, Der Ling professed to be so angered by what she saw as false portraits of Cixi appearing in books and periodicals that she wrote her own account of serving “Old Buddha,” which she called “Two Years in the Forbidden City.” This book appeared in 1911, just before the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and was a popular success.

In this book, Cixi is not the monster of depravity depicted in the popular press and in the second and third hand accounts left by foreigners who had lived in Beijing, but an aging woman who loved beautiful things, had many regrets about the past and the way she had dealt with the many crises of her long reign, and apparently trusted Der Ling enough to share many memories and opinions with her.

It was clearly Cixi’s favouritism toward Der Ling, including permitting her to wear a “princess button” on her hat, that prompted Der Ling in later years, when seeking an English equivalent to her office at court, to add “Princess” to her name, a move that undermined her credibility in China even as it drove up her stock when she went before the American public in the 1920s to give lectures about life at court with the semi-legendary Cixi. Der Ling ultimately wrote a full-length biography of Cixi titled ‘Old Buddha.’

Der Ling would go on to write seven more books about this relatively brief period in her youth when she had been close to the centre of failing imperial Chinese power, and sharing this personal history and her habit of promoting herself and her writings caused most of her family to turn against her. All of this has made it difficult to assess Der Ling’s contribution to late Qing historiography. But the fact remains that she was the first woman of Cixi’s own ethnic background to live with and observe her and then write about what it was like; if many of Der Ling’s recollections smack of the every day minutiae of a court that throve on details and form, her writings are no less valuable for focusing on them, particularly as life within the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace was a closed book for most people in China, let alone in the rest of the world. It was misunderstanding of much of what emanated from the throne that created so many of the problems Cixi has been wholly blamed for.

Starting with Sterling Seagrave’s biography of Cixi, ‘Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China’, Der Ling and her reminiscences of the imperial court have been rehabilitated in recent years, in tandem with reassessments of the Empress Dowager herself. In January 2008, Hong Kong University Press published the first biography of Der Ling, ‘Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling’.

Other sources

Cixi appears frequently in ceremonies described in the diaries of Sir Ernest Satow for 1900–06 when Satow was British envoy in Peking.

Another well known but now widely questioned biography is “China Under The Empress Dowager” by J. O. P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse was later found to have forged some of his source materials when he wrote this work. This is a book that gave rise to much of the negative perspective of the dowager empress.


Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Xiaojingcheng
Empress Dowager of China
concurrently with Empress Dowager Ci’an:
Succeeded by
Empress Dowager Longyu

 In 1861, when a powerful leader could have turned the country around, the Chinese throne was taken over by a succession of child emperors who were controlled by a former concubine known as the Empress Dowager Wu Cixi.

 Less than five feet tall and known to ordinary Chinese as “that evil old woman,” Wu Cixi rose from the position of a third-level concubine to become the ostensible ruler of China for 48 years by bearing the Emperor of China his only son. A staunch anti-reformist, she was exploited by Western powers, who she claimed to despise, and brought untold hardship and despair to ordinary Chinese and oversaw the collapse of Qing (Manchu) dynasty.

 Books: China Under the Empress Dowager by E. Backhouse and J.O. Bland; The Dragon Empress by Marina Warner; Dragon Lady by Sterling Seagrave.

Early Life of Empress Dowager Cixi


 The girl that would later become the Empress Dowager Wu Cixi was born Lan Kuei (“Little Orchid”) on November 29, 1835. The daughter of a minor Manchu official, she taught herself to read and may have been engaged to a handsome general named Jung Lu. In 1952, at the age of 16, she became a concubine of the Qing Emperor Hsein Feng (Xianfeng) and entered the Forbidden City and was given the name Cixi.

 Hsein Feng was not the best of leaders. He reportedly spent much of his time smoking opium and chasing after transvestites and girls with three-inch “lily feet.” While he indulged himself, Cixi studied Confucianism and dabbled with Buddhist and shamanist mysticism.

 After sleeping with Cixi, the emperor raised her status one rank. On April 27, 1856 at the age of 20, she gave birth to a son, Tsai Ch’un (Tongzhi), and her rank was raised again to an inner circle concubine. After producing a son, she and the emperor became closer and she assisted him with some decision-making while his health declined.

Empress Dowager Cixi Secures Power

 The Empress turned out to be barren. While the Emperor was on his deathbed, Cixi pleaded with him to name her son as his successor. Recalling the moment Cixi later said, “I took my son to his bedside and asked him what he was going to do about his successor to the throne…I said to him, ‘Here is your son; on hearing which he immediately opened his eyes and said, ‘Of course he will succeed to the throne.”

 The Emperor stayed true to his word and arranged for Cixi (now the empress dowager) and eight regents to run the court while his son (now Tongzhi or T’ung Chih) grew up.

 After the Emperor died in 1861, Cixi was named an empress dowager and Tongzhi’s co-regent. She effectively seized power by ordering the arrests of the eight regents and arranging the forced suicides of two of them with silk ropes. She then outmaneuvered a rival empress dowager and ruled the court behind the scenes through a “bamboo curtain.” Tongzhi was five when the Emperor died. He ascended to the throne at the age of 18 but died of small pox or syphilis two years later.

 Cixi was a master of court politics and intrigue and managed by keep her power even after her son died. After he died Cixi presided over the Grand Council and pushed through her choice for emperor: Guangxu, her three-year-old nephew (the son of her sister and a prince). When he ascended to the throne she went briefly into retirement and he developed a fascination with Western technologies, particularly clocks and bicycles.

Guangxu and Attempts at Reform in China

 Guangxu, the second to last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, is best known for his unsuccessful attempt to modernize China by instituting reforms to the system of government in 1898, the so-called Hundred Days Reform aimed to adopt a constitutional monarchy. The reforms turned out to be short-lived, just like the emperor himself.

 Enlightened Qing Dynasty statesman tried to introduce Western technology and modernize China while keeping the Qing dynasty intact. Ignoring conservatives in his court, the 27-year-old Emperor Guangxu launched a reform movement called Hundred Day Reform in 1898 in which he set about abolishing institutions that had held back China’s progress. As part of his modernization campaign he hoped to establish transportation networks, beef up the military, translate Western books, educate the masses and get rid of “bigoted conservatism and impractical customs.”

 Guangxu he had been influenced by Chinese reformers like Kang Yuwei (1858-1927). The founder of the “Self Strengthening” movement in the 1860s, Kang attempted to bring about changes based on Western ideas of progress and freedom and urged the Qing court to modernize China by building railways and improving ports, factories, weapons and metal and textile factories. At the end of the 19th century, most of the railways, mines and communications lines in China had been built for foreigners for their own use.

 The reforms failed when the Empress Dowager Cixi staged a palace coup and Emperor Guangxu was imprisoned in the Hall of Impregnating Vitality on an artificial island in the Forbidden City, where he studied English and international affairs but never again wielded any power. The coup took place on September 21, 1898 and was carried out by Manchu generals and members of the Manchurian elite. Once installed as the leader of China, the Empress Dowager canceled all the reforms except those involving the military.

 Near the end of her rule, the Empress Dowager made a few feeble attempts at reform. She ended the 2000-year-old Confucian exams system in 1905, outlawed cruel punishments, improved the legal and education system and modernized railroads. But these reforms were too little, too late. Central authority began to crumble after her death in 1908.

Guangxu’s Death

Guangxu On November 11, 1908, the 37-year-old emperor died suddenly in the Summer Palace where he had been under house arrest since 1898, when the Empress Dowager Cixi launched a coup against him. Even though the death was officially announced to be caused by disease, it has been the subject of speculation. Even in his own day, the cause of death was disputed. The emperor’s doctor’s diary recorded that Guangxu had ‘spells of violent stomach ache’, with his face turning blue. Such symptoms are consistent with arsenic poisoning. Actually, three persons were suspected behind the murder. The empress, her eunuch Li Lianying, and general Yuan Shikai, who betrayed Guangxu in the last days of the reforms and directly caused their failure. [Source: Danwei.org]

 In November 2008, study released right before the 100th anniversary of Guangxu’s death, concluded that that the cause of Guangxu’s death was indeed arsenic poisoning. The Beijing News reported that the tests, which took five years to carry out, showed lethal doses of arsenic present in the emperor’s hair and clothes, which were retrieved from his tomb. The tested arsenic level is not only higher than normal, it is also higher than the level found in a mummified body of other people living in the emperor’s own time. It was also found that the arsenic levels in the roots of Guangxu’s hair were higher than at the tips, thus ruling out the possibility of chronic poisoning from long term arsenic intake from medicines. “ [Ibid] The day after Guangxu’s death, his adversary and persecutor, the Empress Dowager Cixi, also died. Could it be that knowing she was in her last days, she gave the order to kill him so that he would not outlive her? Or was it general Yuan Shikai who feared that once the emperor resumed power, he would be the first one to be eradicated for treachery? Science has no answer for these questions. “ [Ibid]

Life of Luxury of the Empress Dowager Cixi

 The Empress Dowager spent much of her time in the outskirts of Beijing in the Summer Palace, a huge complex with a marble boat built in 1888 with money that was supposed to be spent on building a modern navy. See Summer Palace, Places

 The cost of running her court was $6.5 million a year (an astronomical sum at that time). She celebrated her birthdays with the release of 10,000 caged birds, and banquets with 128 courses with 30 kinds of desert and dishes like fried magnolia and lotus flowers, ducks tongues and stuffed melons.

 The Empress Dowager covered her face with white cake make-up and placed patches of cherry rouge on her cheeks and lower lip. According to Manchu custom, she didn’t cut her hair, her feet remained unbound and the nails of her third and forth fingers were over four inches long. Her wardrobe required 160 bolts of silk, satin and gauze each year to make. A $5 million exhibit in Kong Hong called “Empress Dowager Cixi—Her Art of Living,” included displays of the empress’s facial creams, soaps and skin bleach, her stone massage roller, hairpins, headdresses and gold nail casings.

 The Empress Dowager reportedly entertained herself by ordering her maids to engage in slapping contests and by playing a game of her own invention called “Eight Fairies Travel Across the Sea.” She rested her head on a pillow stuffed with tea leaves and rose petals, slept on a 10-foot-long, fire-heated brick bed, and took medicines made from crushed pearls. Once when a hairdresser accidently plucked two hairs from her head she ordered the hairdresser to put them back. At parties she used to clap her hands to draw everyone’s the attention and then asked if anybody needed to pee. She didn’t ride in a train until she was 67.

 The Empress Dowager drank human’s mother’s milk as part of effort to stay young. Her favorite dish reportedly was Mandarin sweet and sour dish. She also reportedly had a big sexual appetite. The were rumors or dubious origin that she even had Englishmen brought into her chambers to satisfy her sexual demands. There also stories that she fell in love with the eunuch Li Lienying

Summer Palace Boat

Cixi’s English Lover?

 Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, In his memoirs Decadence Mandchoue , the British reporter and scholar Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, “claimed that, at the age of 32, even though by nature he was homosexual – indeed, ravenously so – he became the favorite lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), then 69, whose oversized clitoris she would deftly employ to his pathic delight. And, when Sir Edmund wasn’t frolicking with the “Old Buddha”, as she was affectionately known, he was giving it to just about any young, attractive eunuch in her service. Sex with eunuchs – and with catamites in the “bathhouses” of Peking (now Beijing) – was Backhouse’s preferred form of eroticism. [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

 “As Decadence Mandchoue begins, it is an April afternoon in 1899, and Backhouse is about to meet the love of his life – whom he dubs “Cassia Flower” – in one of the city’s male brothels, but their passionate love-making will be cut short a year later by Boxer Rebellion riots that force the establishment to shut down. Backhouse will never see Cassia Flower again, but the memory still burns bright in the memoirs he wrote at the end of his life, 45 years later. “ [Ibid]

 “His true heart may have been with Cassia Flower, but when the empress called, Backhouse was nevertheless dutifully and erectly present, even if a powerful aphrodisiac was required to get him through prolonged nights requiring three to four orgasms with his insatiable, near-septuagenarian royal partner. This exacting sexual schedule continued until shortly before Cixi’s death, at 73, in 1908 – or so these memoirs attest.” [Ibid]

 “By the way, did you know that Cixi, de facto ruler of China for 47 years, did not die of natural causes, as history records? No, she was murdered – with three brutal, point-blank shots to the abdomen – by none other than Yuan Shikai, one of the eight regional viceroys during her reign who was later to become second president of the Republic of China. All that’s according to Cixi’s chief eunuch, Li Lien-ying, who happened to be Backhouse’s best friend and so gave him the exclusive scoop, not to mention his personal diaries detailing all of his years of service to the empress. Unfortunately, those diaries are nowhere to be found; nor can any of the other corroborating “papers”, claimed but conveniently “lost” by the author, be located. There is also no reason to believe in an affair Backhouse alludes to with the famously gay Irish novelist, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Add to the long list of tall tales the meeting he recounts with iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. “ [Ibid]

 Book Decadence Mandchoue by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (Earnshaw Books, 2011).

Lurid, Erotic Descriptions by Cixi’s Lover?

 On his first sexual encounter with Cixi, in her boudoir at the Summer Palace, Backhouse wrote: ” I took in my hands her abnormally large clitoris, pressed it toward my lips and performed a [s]low but steady friction which increased its size. She graciously unveiled the mysteries of her swelling vulva, even as that of Messalina, and I marvelled at the perennial youth which its abundance seemed to indicate.” [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

 ”She allowed me to fondle her breasts which were those of a young married woman; her skin was exquisitely scented with the violet to which I have made allusion; her whole body, small and shapely, was redolent with la joie de vivre; her shapely buttocks pearly and large were presented to my admiring contemplation: I felt for her a real libidinous passion such as no woman has ever inspired in my pervert homosexual mind before nor since.” [Ibid]

 “In other chapters,” Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times. “ Backhouse describes a vampire prince, lightning-struck lovers and oracles with crystal balls that recapture the past for the Empress Dowager while also foretelling her future – quite wrongly, as it turns out. Backhouse was, as he tells it, present for all of this and duly records what he heard and saw, including rattling tables and revelatory messages from the spirit world during a seance. “ [Ibid]

 “In one particularly bizarre chapter, Backhouse is enjoying the pleasures of young male prostitutes in a Peking bathhouse when the Old Buddha crashes the orgy dressed as a man and insists on watching. A eunuch and a well-endowed bath attendant are bidden to perform for the empress and, as Backhouse reports, the show is well received: “Everything went swimmingly (like a fish in midstream) and in due course ejaculation into the pathic’s rectum was faithfully accomplished. This achieved, both parties rose and kowtowed to the Empress …” But, her curiosity not yet sated, Cixi then orders a young imperial duke to also serve as pathic in the extended sexual fun and, after this, there follows a display of “69″ – which Backhouse points out (in case you didn’t know) is called “soixante neuf” in France and which (again, in case you didn’t know) “is only easy when the parties are of the same length”. [Ibid]

Credibility Problems of Cixi’s Lover

 Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, “What readers are left with is, quite probably, the steamy, self-aggrandizing fiction of a lonely, dying old man – once celebrated for his scholarship and linguistic genius – who wrote to comfort and distract himself during the final year of his life, 1943-1944…In his time, Backhouse was highly regarded in Peking for his ability as a researcher and translator. He worked for The Times of London and, in collaboration with another Times correspondent, JOP Bland, wrote two best-selling books on China: China Under the Empress Dowager (1910) and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914). These two works were pivotal in shaping Western perceptions of the Qing court under Cixi. [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

 “Backhouse was accused of forgery, however, by another Times correspondent, Dr George Ernest Morrison, for his heavy reliance in China Under the Empress Dowager on the diary of a high court official, Ching Shan, a source later proved to be a fabrication. The accusations against Backhouse were never fully substantiated during his lifetime, but in 1976, 32 years after his death, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a damning biography, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which revealed the once-revered sinologist to be an inveterate fraud, a licentious homosexual and, even worse, anti-British. “ [Ibid]

 Trevor-Roper characterized Backhouse as a hermit because of his tendency to avoid other foreigners in Peking and expressed disdain for his loss of faith in British constitutional monarchy and his apparent attraction to the fascism that had taken hold in Europe and Japan in the run-up to World War II. As for his bawdy memoirs – which had been gathering dust on a shelf at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library since Backhouse’s death – Trevor-Roper wrote: “No verve in writing can redeem their pathological obscenity.” Trevor-Roper himself was later implicated in the Hitler Diaries hoax. [Ibid]

 Graham Earnshaw, publisher of Decadence Mandchoue wrote: “ The issue of whether or how much of it is a fantasy is of course important… There is now no way to know how much was real and how much made up. But at the very least I believe his descriptions of homosexual brothels and behaviour in that place and era are accurate and a first-hand job. Beyond the veracity/fantasy question is the fact the writing is very good, and the sex scenes hilariously over-the-top, the stories recounted with wonderful intellectual pixieness. I enjoyed spending time with this fascinating, over-educated and over-sexed man. He deserved to be given the chance to respond to Hermit, even if from beyond the grave. I am proud to have published it.

 “My mentor Gareth Powell had the following comments on Backhouse and Kent Ewing’s review which I think worth passing on: It is a well written criticism but the writer fails to grasp the importance of the book. For all his manifest faults Backhouse was an educated man who had access to a court that was pretty much totally closed to all foreigners. That we have an eccentric, a man much given to boasting and often a liar there is no doubt. But his writings have great value simply because of their rarity.

 We have the same situation with Anna Leonowens. Yes, we can prove that some of what she wrote was bollocks. And yes, her life after the period in Thailand takes some strange twists and turns. But although she was a liar, and although her depiction of the king left much to be desired she is worth reading and publishing because we have no one else. A distorted view through a telescope is better than no view at all.

Decisions and Eunuchs in the Empress Dowager’s Court

Empress Cixi’s eunuchs Describing the decision making process of Empress Dowager Cixi, one courtier said, “In the morning an order is issued; in the evening it is changed. Unavoidably outsiders will laugh, But there is nothing that can be done about it.” Another court member said: “She is very changeable; she may like one person today, tomorrow she hates the same person worse than poison.”

 Describing her temper on official said, her eyes “poured out straight rays; her cheekbones were sharp and the veins on her forehead projected; she showed her teeth as if she were suffering from lockjaw.” Another court member said, “It was characteristic of Her Majesty to experience a keen sense of enjoyment at the troubles of other people.”

 With the exception of the Emperor, the 6,000 residents of the Forbidden City were eunuchs or women. Much of the day to day operation of the imperial court was taken care by Li Liyang, the Empress Dowager’s favorite eunuch. He headed an imperial staff that oversaw thousands of cooks, gardeners, laundrymen, cleaners, painters and other eunuchs that were ordered around in a complex hierarchy with 48 separate grades.

 ”Each eunuch was apprenticed to a master,” wrote Marina Warner, biographer of the Empress Dowager, “and his eventual success or promotion depended on the favor in which his master was held. On his master’s death, a young eunuch might be forgotten…until the day he himself died but if he was apprenticed to the chief he might rapidly acquire influence.”

Decline of the Qing Dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion

 At the end of the 19th century China existed as a nation in name only. The Qing dynasty controlled only parts of China and the rest of China was divided among warlords and foreigners who controlled different parts of the country. As the Qing dynasty fell apart more and more of China was wrestled from its control.

 The Qing dynasty was weakened by the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. The Empress Dowager supported the Boxer rebellion in 1900 and at one point declared war against the United States, Japan and seven European countries.

 In her book The Boxer Rebellion, Diana Preston wrote of the Empress Dowager: “On the one hand she was afraid of the Boxers because they threatened her rule. She couldn’t control them. On the other hand, they represented a growing and highly motivated army she didn’t have to pay, one that might help her ‘purify’ China of its corrupting foreign influences.” Her own troops finally joined the Boxers.

 After the Boxer Rebellion the Empress Dowager fled from the Forbidden City in Beijing for Xian with her court. She and the Emperor managed to slip out of the city disguised as peasants. Even though the Qing Dynasty was in ruins, foreigners kept it propped because they viewed a Qing dynasty under their control better than a potentially hostile newcomer and they saw no better alternative.

 According to a famous story, after the Boxer Rebellion, when Empress Cixi was worried that European troops were going to attack the Forbidden City, she summoned Emperor Guangxu and his favorite concubine Zhen Fei and then ordered the palace evacuated. Zhen Fei begged for the Emperor to stay behind and negotiate with the Europeans. Cixi, the story goes, was enraged by the “Pearl Concubine’s” audacity and ordered some eunuchs to throw her down a well at the Forbidden City.

 There is no evidence to support this story. Cixi’s great, great nephew told Smithsonian magazine. “The concubine was sharp-tongued and often stood up to Cixi, making her angry. When they were about to flee the foreign troops, the concubine said she’d remain within the Forbidden City. Cixi told her that the barbarians world rape here if she stayed, and that it was best if she escaped disgrace by throwing herself down the well. The concubine did just that.” The well is popular stop at the Forbidden City and is so small that neither story seems likely.

Death of the Empress Dowager

 The Empress Dowager Cixi died at the age of 72 on November 15, 1908. The day after she died, court officials announced that the death of imprisoned Emperor Guangxu. The cause of his death remains a mystery. One rumor has it he was poisoned on the empress dowagers orders. According to a Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, she “almost certainly ordered the simultaneous death by poisoning of the young emperor and empress the day before she died in 1908.”

 Near the end of her life the Empress Dowager said, “I have often thought that I am the cleverest woman that ever lived and that others cannot compare with me. Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria…still I don’t think her life is half as interesting and eventful as mine. Now look at me, I have 400 million people all dependent on my judgment.”

 Just before she died Cixi arranged for Guangxu’s nephew—her grandnephew—to be named the last emperor of China. In 1928, Cixi’s grave was desecrated by graverobbers who pulled her pants down.

Last Emperor of China

Pu Yi as a baby The Empress Dowager was succeeded in 1908 by The Last Emperor, Puyi, the son of an imperial prince and the daughter of Jung Lu (the general who Cixi reportedly was engaged to when she was young and who supported her throughout her career).

 Puyi (Pu Yi) was born in 1906 and was named emperor just before his third birthday. The ultimate spoiled child, he had no set meal times. He simply issued the command: “Transmit the viands”—and he was given an Imperial banquet at that moment. He also was like an ordinary kid. He was given a bicycle by his Scottish tutor and arguably treasured it more than anything else he owned and to ride it around the Forbidden City courtyards.

 Emperor Puyi was forced to abdicate by the forces that would create the Republic of China in 1911 when he was six years old, three years after he took the throne, during a nationalist uprising, thus ending the Qing dynasty’s 265 year hold on power. Afterwards Manchu headgear, and anything else related to the Qings, was banned. In Hong Kong people celebrated wildly in the streets and radicals attacked the Chinese newspaper and bank, forcing them to remove Manchu imperial flags.

 Film: The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Last Emperor After His Abdication

 Puyi lived in the Forbidden City until he was 18. He took the name of Henry, spent much of his time watching Harold Lloyd movies and hanging out in the palace gardens. He was served by 1000 eunuchs, 100 doctors and 200 chefs. During his last years in the Forbidden Palace, he and his large retinue supported themselves by selling of works of art. Some of Puyi’s most trusted advisors and courtiers sold rare items from the imperial collection and replaced them with counterfeits.

 According to the book Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Emperor’s Final Marriage by Jia Yinghua, Puyi was a closet homosexual who had a relationship with a boy eunuch with “red lips and white teeth,” and was given hormone shots to cure his impotence. According to the eunuch Sun Yaoting Puyi himself was less interested in his wife than he was in an attractive eunuch who “looked like a pretty girl with his tall, slim figure, handsome face and creamy skin.” Sun said Puyi and the eunuch were “inseparable as body and shadow.”

 At the age of 16 he married a former dance hall hostess named Wanring who had been married two times before. She married him for his money and found he had none. Wanring became addicted to opium and gave birth to a child fathered by a different man.

 In June 1917, the Warlord Zhang Xun brought his troops into Beijing and together with Kang Youwei supported Puyi’s accession to the throne. A few days later Zhang Xun was driven out of Beijing.

 In 1924, 12 years after his abdication, an 18-year-old Puyi was ordered out of the Imperial Palace in Beijing by the provisional Kuomintang government. He took his elaborate court retinue, some 2,000 eunuchs and the imperial art collection with him to Tianjin, where he was exiled. It was the first time he left the Forbidden City.

 Puyi wrote in his autobiography that he was eating an apple at 9:00am on November 5, 1924 when republican troops gave him three hours to vacate the Forbidden City That afternoon he signed a declaration that “the imperial title of the Hsuan Tung Emperor of the Great China is this day abolished in perpetuity” and the left the palace in a fleet of limousines.

 When the Japanese formed the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria, Puyi was set up as the “Puppet Emperor” and lived in the Manchurian city of Changsun for 14 years. When the Japanese state collapsed after World War II, Henry was arrested as a war criminal by the Russians.

Last Emperor’s Later Years

 Puyi spent five years against his will in Russia after World War II. On his return to China in 1950 he was sent to a labor camp, where he learned gardening and made peace with the Communist government by turning over three priceless imperial seals. The Communists allowed him to work for the government as an editor and as a gardener in the Beijing Botanical Gardens at the University of Beijing.

 ”The most memorable day of my life,” he told a Western journalist was December 4, 1959, when, after ten years of “re-education,” he received a special pardon from the People’s Republic. During his re-education he said he experienced “revelation and rebirth” and came to understand “how thoroughly soaked in crime and evil” the first half of his life had been.

 Puyi He died of cancer in 1967 at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. His ashes were eventually buried in a large modern tomb, 100 miles southwest of Beijing, near the tombs of four Qing Emperors (including his predecessor Guangxu), and the bass player from the rock band Tang Dynasty, who died in a car accident in 1995.

 Puyi’s brother-in-law, Ran Qi, Guo Luo, a consultant for the Bertolucci film, who was living in apartment in the Forbidden City a the age of 96 in 2008, told Smithsonian magazine, “Puyi never wanted to be emperor. His great wish was to go to England and study to become a teacher.”



  1. Ching Qing dynasty- I am researching the Regent Sushun , executed 1860- does anyone know what his rank badge would be?

    • Sushun became a General during the late years of the Daoguang Emperor’s reign.

      Sushun was increasingly consulted by the emperor on many important policy matters. His first position in the court was as a member of the Imperial Guard and he subsequently served in a number of senior positions in the Qing government, including a term as the president of the Lifan Yuan. During the Second Opium War, he was one of the chief architects of Qing foreign policy and he repudiated many of the treaties that were concluded in the late 1850s, in particular the territorial concessions in the Sino-Russian Treaty of Aigun.

      Following the death of the Xianfeng Emperor in 1861, Sushun, his elder brother Duanhua, and Zaiyuan, along with five other prominent people in the Qing Court, were appointed Regents to oversee administrative affairs during the young Tongzhi Emperor’s minority. However, without obtaining the seals of the two Empresses Dowager, the Regency could not carry out any important policy decisions, which led to increased political friction in the imperial court. In November 1861, a triumvirate consisting of the half-brother of the deceased emperor, Prince Gong and the two empresses dowager, Ci’an and Cixi, staged a coup d’état, establishing themselves as the only rightful regents of the boy emperor. All the members of the eight-man council were arrested and Sushun was beheaded in public in 1861 on charges of treason.

      Partial translation: “The grave of Sushun of the Qing
      Located in Xiaomeichang village in Haidian district, Beijing. Sushun (1816-1861), styled Yuting, was a man of the Manchu Bordered Blue Banner and a famous high official of the Qing court…. After the Xianfeng emperor’s death, he was appointed regent, but was killed in the Qixiang Coup launched by the Empress-dowager Cixi. Sushun’s grave was only an earthen mound, and was looted by tomb robbers in 1937. Today, nothing remains of the grave.


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